09.29.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Judicial Nominations

This month, the Senate passed a resolution recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month and celebrating Hispanic Americans as dedicated public servants in the highest levels of government.  These great Americans include a Supreme Court justice, 3 U.S. Senators, 34 members of the House of Representatives, and 3 members of the President’s Cabinet.  I commend the U.S. Senate for passing this resolution celebrating Hispanic heritage, but we should be doing much more than approving a resolution.  We should be working on a bipartisan basis to pass comprehensive immigration reform, as the Senate did last Congress under a Democratic majority.  And at the same time, the Senate should immediately confirm the several judicial nominees supported by the non-partisan Hispanic National Bar Association.

There are three outstanding Hispanic judicial nominees that are currently pending on the Senate’s Executive Calendar – Luis Felipe Restrepo, nominated to a judicial emergency vacancy in the Third Circuit; Armando Bonilla, nominated to a judicial vacancy in the Court of Federal Claims; and John Michael Vazquez, nominated to a judicial emergency vacancy in the District of New Jersey.  A fourth, Dax López, has been nominated to a judicial vacancy in the Northern District of Georgia, and is still awaiting a hearing in the Judiciary Committee.

These dedicated public servants are eager to serve, but they have been blocked by the Republican leadership’s virtual shutdown of the judicial confirmation process since they took over the majority in January.  More than eight months into this new Congress, the Republican leadership has allowed just six votes for judges.  At this rate, the Senate this year will confirm the fewest number of judges in more than a half century.  Luis Felipe Restrepo, Armando Bonilla, John Michael Vazquez, and Dax López all deserve an up or down vote by this Senate. 

Judge Restrepo was nominated last year to fill an emergency vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Pennsylvania.  If confirmed, Judge Restrepo would be the first Hispanic judge from Pennsylvania to ever serve on this appellate court and only the second Hispanic judge to serve on the Third Circuit.  He was unanimously confirmed two years ago by the Senate to serve as a district court judge.  During his tenure as both a Federal district court judge and as a Federal magistrate judge, he has presided over 56 trials that have gone to verdict or judgment.  He is superbly qualified, and I have heard no objection to his nomination.  Despite his outstanding credentials and experience, it took the Republican majority seven months just to schedule a hearing in the Judiciary Committee for this qualified nominee.

Judge Restrepo has bipartisan support from both Pennsylvania Senators, and was voted out of the Judiciary Committee unanimously by voice vote.  He has the strong endorsement of the non-partisan Hispanic National Bar Association.  At his confirmation hearing in June, Senator Toomey stated that “there is no question [Judge Restrepo] is a very well qualified candidate to serve on the Third Circuit.”  Senator Toomey described Judge Restrepo’s life story as “an American Dream” and recounted how Judge Restrepo came to the United States from Columbia and rose to the top of his profession by “virtue of his hard work, his intellect, his integrity.”  I could not agree more.

Given his remarkable credentials, wealth of experience, and strong bipartisan support, the Senate should have confirmed Judge Restrepo months ago.  Instead, for 10 months since his nomination back in November 2014, he has been denied a vote on his confirmation.  No Senate Democrat opposes a vote on his nomination.  He is being denied a confirmation vote by Senate Republican leadership.  No one doubts that he will be confirmed once Majority Leader McConnell schedules his vote.  I have heard Senator Toomey indicate his strong support and that he would like to see Judge Restrepo receive a vote, but I have yet to see him ask for a firm commitment on a vote.  The people of Pennsylvania are no doubt wondering when this long-standing and emergency vacancy on their appeals court will be filled. 

Another outstanding public servant is Armando Bonilla, who was first nominated to serve on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims back in May 2014.  If confirmed, Mr. Bonilla would be the first Hispanic judge to hold a seat on that court.  He is strongly endorsed by the Hispanic National Bar Association.  He has spent his entire career – now spanning over two decades – as an attorney for the Department of Justice.  He was hired out of law school into the Department’s prestigious Honors Program, and has risen to become an Associate Deputy Attorney General in the Department.

Armando Bonilla’s background is also one that reminds us of the American Dream.  The son of a Cuban immigrant and Cuban-American father, Mr. Bonilla has told the story of his mother’s flight from Havana with his aunt and his grandmother.  He has told the story of his uncle, “Tío Mario,” who eventually disappeared trying to help other exiles.  And he has told the story of his father, who dropped out of high school, but served our country by joining the Marines, and took on several jobs to support Armando and his sister.  As Mr. Bonilla has beautifully described, his father “exemplified the most outstanding qualities of the Hispanic culture and Hispanic people: the selfless sacrifice, the steely resolve and unbridled optimism and the genuine pride in an honest day’s work – all toward the cause of improving the lives of the next generation.”  Mr. Bonilla should be confirmed without further delay.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has been operating with several vacancies since February 2013.  Only 11 of the 16 seats on the court are occupied by active judges.  We could have a court working at full strength if we confirmed Mr. Bonilla and the other four nominees pending on the Senate Executive Calendar.  All five of them were nominated more than a year ago, and have twice been voted out of the Judiciary Committee by unanimous voice vote.  There is no good reason to delay an up or down vote for these uncontroversial nominees.

John Michael Vazquez was nominated to a judicial emergency vacancy in the District of New Jersey in March.  He has been a public servant for both the Office of the Attorney General for the State of New Jersey and as a Federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of New Jersey.  During his tenure in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Mr. Vazquez handled a wide array of Federal investigations and prosecutions while serving in the General Crimes Unit, the Major Narcotics Unit, the Terrorism Unit, and the Securities and Health Care Fraud Unit.

The ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary unanimously rated Mr. Vazquez “Well Qualified” to serve as a district judge, its highest rating.  He also has the support of his two home state senators, Senators Menendez and Booker.  He was voted out of the Judiciary Committee by voice vote.  There is no reason why Mr. Vazquez, along with Judge Restrepo and Mr. Bonilla, should not be confirmed today.  Each of the outstanding Hispanic judicial nominees pending on the floor will be confirmed overwhelmingly if Majority Leader McConnell will simply schedule a confirmation vote. 

Over the past seven years, the Senate has acted to confirm some outstanding Hispanic American judicial nominees.  President Obama nominated the first Latina to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the first Latino circuit judges in three circuits – Alberto Diaz on the Fourth Circuit, Adalberto Jordan on the Eleventh Circuit, and Jimmie Reyna on the Federal Circuit; and has already appointed 35 Hispanic Americans to serve on the Federal bench – more than any other president in history.  But this record does not mean that the Senate should shut down any further confirmations as some in the majority may desire.  The Senate has an obligation to vote on judicial nominees in regular order and to consider them fairly based on their individual merit. 

A recent report from the Brookings Institution dated September 18, 2015 confirms that the Republican obstruction on judicial nominees is unprecedented in recent history.  It states:  “Senate Republicans’ aggressive slowdown in judicial confirmations so far in 2015 … are contrary to the confirmation records in the final two years of the other two-term presidencies since 1961 – Ronald Reagan, William Clinton, and George W. Bush.”  And a recent report by the Alliance for Justice dated September 17, 2015 notes that “[t]he burgeoning vacancies are the result of playing politics with judicial selection.  And the victims are the people and businesses who cannot access courts to seek justice, and the judges who must shoulder the burden of increased caseloads and fewer resources.” 

I urge all Senators to read these reports as well as a recent story in the Associated Press that highlights the real consequences of Senate Republicans’ judicial blockade.  The story highlights a case brought by Latino migrant farmworkers for wage theft in Federal district court in Eastern California.  I ask unanimous consent that the Associated Press article be included in the record.  The workers have waited more than three years to learn whether they can proceed with their claim.  As years go by, the workers’ attorney worries that her clients will have moved and be impossible to reach if and when she is able to recover their stolen wages.  This is another heartbreaking example that justice delayed is effectively justice denied.  The Senate, however, can act right now to alleviate the considerable backlog of cases in the Eastern District of California by confirming the non-controversial pending nominee for this court, Federal Magistrate Judge Dale Drozd.  Judge Drozd was voice voted out of the Judiciary Committee in June and there is no reason why we cannot vote today on his confirmation.

The Republican leadership’s virtual shutdown of judicial confirmations has only served to undermine the Judicial Branch and harm the American people.  I urge Senate Republicans to change course and lead responsibly.  The Senate should immediately turn to the confirmation vote of Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo and then schedule confirmation votes for the other 15 judicial nominees, including, Mr. Bonilla, and Mr. Vazquez, without further delay. 

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